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Battling Giants in Everyday Life (Part 1 of 2)

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Battling Giants in Everyday Life (Part 1 of 2)

Writer Malcolm Gladwell offers encouragement to listeners as he shares a fresh perspective on facing life's obstacles and setbacks in a discussion based on his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Summary

Writer Malcolm Gladwell offers encouragement to listeners as he shares a fresh perspective on facing life's obstacles and setbacks in a discussion based on his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript

Opening:

Teaser:

Malcolm Gladwell: Everyone else is quaking in their boots, right? Only David steps forward. Now he didn’t step forward foolishly. He uses his brain and his wits to figure out, oh, okay, what I’m gonna do is change the rules and bring this weapon. But what fires him, what gives him purpose and meaning and courage is the fact that God is in his heart and he understands the power that gives him.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Reflecting on the classic story in the Old Testament of the Bible, David and Goliath. That is our guest for today’s broadcast, Malcolm Gladwell. You’ll hear a unique spin on that familiar story as he talks with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and we had the change to interview Malcolm Gladwell a few months ago in New York City.

Jim Daly: We did, John and it was fascinating. I so enjoyed the conversation. I’ve read other books that he’s written, mostly again for a secular audience. He’s a New York Times best seller and that’s part of what intrigued me. He has made a recommitment to the Lord and he talked about that in our interview and he talked about writing David and Goliath and those things that he uniquely picks up. He is a person of observation and he highlights things that you just slide by and you miss and I think you’re all gonna really enjoy that perspective and what he sees in the story of David and Goliath.

John: And in addition to that particular book, Malcolm has also written Tipping Point, Outliers and the book called Blink. And he grew up in a small Mennonite community in Ontario, Canada. His mother is Jamaican and his dad, English and he moved away and kind of drifted away from his faith for a season, but it was while he was writing David and Goliath that he came back to that faith.

Jim: Well, and he credits his mom with giving him the inspiration to write at all and write he has. His books have sold over 10 million copies and this is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time and I love that intersection of faith and observation. The story of David and Goliath is only a small part of the conversation. He brings in a lot of other examples in everyday modern life that proves the points in the observations that he’s making.

John: Well, let’s go ahead and hear the conversation with Malcolm Gladwell on today’s “Focus on the Family.”

Body:

You’ve had a fascination even from a young age about the sciences and academic research and how that all kind of intersects in life. Just recently I was at Georgetown University with the sociologist from Harvard, Robert Putnam and we were discussing his research on the breakdown of the family. And what I was thrilled as a Christian to see is, how much of the data supports the position that we have had, that the best thing we can do to reduce poverty is to keep families together.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: And I had that same fascination that you’ve expressed. Talk about that as you see social science and other sciences kind of bolstering biblical positions.

Malcolm: Yeah, well, what I think and this is really one of the themes I was really interested in, in David and Goliath was in trying to understand the power of faith, spirit, courage, determination. These things aren’t measurable, but that on reflection turn out to be enormously predictive of people’s happiness and success and one of the things that, as you, I think, correctly point out is, that slowly, but I think, surely social science is losing its exclusive focus on the measurable things–your IQ, the income of your parents, the, you know, the desirability of your Zip Code–and focusing more on the importance of the unmeasurable things and that is, you’re right, that is to my mind, one of the central things of Scripture is that very point, that it’s this stuff that’s sort of in the ether that you can’t put your finger on, that makes the ultimate difference in how people turn out and how well they live their lives.

And it’s frustrating to social scientists, because they want something they can measure right, they can point to. And if you’re gonna talk about courage, faith, determination, all those kinds of things, there’s no paper and pencil test you can use to say that I’ve got a score of seven and someone else has got a score of nine. And so, it’s hard for them to make that transition. It seems soft, you know.

Jim: Yeah, unscientific.

Malcolm: Unscientific, but it ought not to be.

Jim: Let’s talk about David and Goliath. Let’s talk about that story, ’cause—

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: –that’s the core of your book, although for the listener, there are so many great chapters. All the chapters we could do a broadcast on and it’s not all just about David and Goliath; it’s about big things and how you conquer them in your life.

Malcolm: Uh-hm.

Jim: And I thought the application that you provide, all of the applications, education and just overcoming these difficulties in life were fascinating to me, but talk about the core story of David and Goliath—

Malcolm: Yes.

Jim: –and what you say, how many of us miss what God may be tellin’ us in this story.

Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. Well, David and Goliath is (Chuckling), you know, if I was gonna write a book on underdogs, I have to deal the great underdog story of all time, right? So, I, you know, I go back and I start to read it more closely than I have normally read it and at the same time, began talking to people, to scholars about it and discovered that the whole rich back story behind the story of David and Goliath.

So, it’s important to remember a couple of things. One is that David’s sling is not a child’s toy. It’s one of the most crucial weapons used by ancient armies. And in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing, it’s an unbelievably devastating weapon.

Jim: In fact, he called ’em “slingers;” is that right.

Malcolm: They’re called “slingers.” Armies had whole groups of slingers that they would use as their artillery. And a rock leaving a sling departs with the force of a bullet leaving a handgun. I mean, it’s not as—

Jim: It’s amazing.

Malcolm: –oh, it will knock you dead if you [are the target]. So, David’s not like, it’s not well, you know, when people read that story sometimes I think without that context, they think, “Oh, it’s an improbable fairytale, the kid with a slingshot.” It’s not a slingshot, a sling, not a fairytale, a kid with a devastating weapon, right?

The other thing that’s fascinating is, Goliath. Goliath’s behavior in that story is strange. He’s led down onto the battlefield floor by someone, as if by the hand, by an attendant, as if he’s like, wait a minute. This is the most powerful warrior in, you know, that entire [area]. Why is he being led by the hand?

And then he’s constantly saying to David, “Come to me,” right? And there’s a bunch of other clues, as well. If you put them all together, a bunch of people have begun to speculate whether Goliath wasn’t suffering from a condition called acromegaly, which is it’s a cause of giantism. People who have overproduction of their pituitary gland, can grow to enormous height. All the biggest giants in history have had this condition called acromegaly.

Jim: Right.

Malcolm: It comes with a side effect and the side effect is often restricted eyesight. And all those clues in the story suggest that Goliath can’t see and when he says to David, “Come to me,” he means, “Come closer; I can’t see you out there, right?”

And to my mind, that’s a crucial part of the story, because what is that scriptural story telling us? It’s telling us that the very thing that we are so in awe of, someone’s size, may also be the cause of their greatest weakness, that with all of the things that come with being a giant, there is a cost and that is, a blindness, right? You’re blinded by all of your worldly power and your glittering armor and your sword and you can’t see the kid coming at you, who’s changed the rules—

Jim: Huh.

Malcolm: –without telling you, right? And that story is so much more powerful to me once I understood that; what is God telling us? God is telling us, don’t be in awe of the giant–

Jim: Ah.

Malcolm: –right. David’s the only one who says, “I’m not impressed by the fact the guy’s enormous and has all this armor on, because for all I know, he could be blind, right?”

Jim: Absolutely and it doesn’t diminish God’s part in that story. Some–

Malcolm: No.

Jim: –Christians might think, “Well, now you’re taking this miracle and diminishing it to actually David having the advantage.” That’s not what you’re saying.

Malcolm: No, okay, what I’m saying is, I mean, to me, it accentuates the role of God in this story, because what is the thing that David has that allows everything to happen. He has the Spirit of the Lord in his heart. It’s all about this intangible thing. Everyone else is quaking in their boots, right? Only David steps forward.

Now he didn’t step forward foolishly. He uses his brain and his wits to figure out, oh, okay, what I’m gonna do is change the rules and bring this weapon. But what fires him, what gives him purpose and meaning and courage is the fact that God is in his heart and he understands the power that gives him, right?

Later on in the book, I tell the story of a little group of Christians in France, of Huguenots, who lives in the mountains of Southern France and to defy the Nazis and openly take in Jewish refugees throughout the entire war, ended up saving thousands of lives.

And they tell the Nazis that. They say, “Look, we’re taking them in and you can come and you can try and find them. We’re gonna hide them. We don’t care what you do. This is our Christian duty,” right? It’s [an] incredible story.

And to me, the great question of that is, here are these Christians in this little town of France who do this. There were lots of other Christians in France, worship the same God, read the same Bible, who don’t do this. What’s the difference?

The difference is, that those Christians in that little town, those Huguenots, understood the power that that their faith in God gave them. They understood it wasn’t this abstract thing. It was real, right, that in the face of the Spirit of the Lord, even the most powerful nastiest army in the world, the Nazis, paled. It wasn’t a fair fight anymore, right?

Jim: Right.

Malcolm: David has that same Spirit in his heart. He understands, “I’m not a kid anymore if I have God on my side.”

Jim: Was there anything in that story with the Huguenots that pointed to why the Nazis wouldn’t go into their town or village and go after them? Were they fearful or they just looked the other way? Or did they’d say, “Well, this is the Huguenots; we’re not gonna be able to rout them out?”

Malcolm: The Huguenots were a group of Christians who had been historically persecuted in France for hundreds of years. They had been through the ringer over and over again. They had been hounded, murdered, chased into the mountains, their children taken away from them, their wives put in prison, their pastors strung up on, you know, they’d seen the worst.

So, the first thing was, the Nazis came along and they’re like, “You know, this is like just another in a series of things we’ve dealt with successfully in the past. God has protected us in the past. You can’t scare us.” So, you understand, a lot of what the work the Nazis did, they did because they intimidated people.

Jim: Huh.

Malcolm: Right? These guys weren’t intimidated. Secondly, they’re up in the mountains and they’re awfully wily, you know. The last thing an occupying army in France wants in 1942 is to get locked up in a long drawn-out conflict with a group of people who know what they’re doing and just melt into the woods, right? So, the Nazis are not dumb. They don’t want to get, you know, tied up in knots. But they also were genuinely perturbed and they would send the French police into this town time and time again and to fine, to try and find these Jewish refugees and somebody was, you know, they’d see them coming up the mountain. Somebody would tip them off and the Huguenots would take these kids they were hiding and just spirit them away into the woods.

Jim: Huh.

Malcolm: I mean, it was like—

Jim: You—

Malcolm: –cat and mouse.

Jim: –yeah, in fact, in your book I remember a quote in that context, in that story where you said that once people made the decision, they had to help the Jews. I mean, that really caught my attention.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: It was this wrestling with, what’s the right moral thing to do? But then once they decided who is not gonna help the Jews, they kicked into action.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: That shows a lot of courage.

John: Uh-hm.

Malcolm: Yeah, it was and I think, as well, it wasn’t a story about one man or a woman standing up against the Nazis. It was a story of a community informed by their faith standing up to the Nazis. And that is a really, really crucial thing, because you can’t ask one person to stand up all by themselves and sometimes when we think about courage, we make it so unrealistic, it’s impossible.

One person can’t do that, but a group who are grounded in generations of religious faith and belief, they can do it. Yeah, that’s a reminder of that faith needs a concrete form to be powerful, right?

Program Note:

John: We’re right in the middle of a fascinating conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, talking about his book, David and Goliath on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. And you can find out more about Malcolm’s book and our effort to help families thrive when you call 800-A-FAMILY. Let’s go ahead now as Jim asked Malcolm for some more modern examples of how obstacles can really be advantages.

End of Program Note

Jim: Some of these examples, you know, they sound very distant, lofty, you know, whether we’re talking about the Huguenots in World War II or David and Goliath 3,000 years ago. Bring it home, because your book use[s] so many modern examples. In fact, one that resonated with my heart was Eisenstadt’s, observation of children who as a parent—I lost both my parents when I was 9 and then when I was 12, my mom and dad. It put me—

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: –into foster care and I often draw on those lessons that I learned in that environment. I think it makes me a better person, even though it was terribly difficult–

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: –to go through that, but I resonated with that aspect of your book, those things that you learn in difficulty.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: And for me, I seemed to be the adult at 9—

Malcolm: Uh-hm.

Jim: –and people around me that were much older seemed unable to know what truth was.

John: Hm.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: And I resonated with that, but talk about that kind of application.

Malcolm: Yes, well, I have a chapter in the book where I talk about, what is the role that adversity plays in greatness, in extraordinary success? And there’s been a number of really fascinating studies that have looked at, you know, one study just started with people who are the encyclopedia, who may, you know, who have accomplished enough in their life to have made it into the encyclopedia.

Or they look at British Prime Ministers or American Presidents or any group of people who’ve accomplished something great. What do they have in common? The answer is, very little except the one thing that comes up again and again and again, it’s what an extraordinarily disproportionate number of them had, as you said, lost at least one parent in childhood. And that’s interesting, because losing a parent as a child is just about the most devastating thing that can happen.

And we are fully acquainted with the bad case scenario from that. If you go to prisons, if you go to any place where you find lots of people who have been crushed by the world, you will find lots of people who lost a parent in childhood. It can be a devastating blow from which people don’t recover.

But at the same time, there is a significant percentage of people who suffer that blow and come out stronger as a result, who find in their adversity, a way to locate and develop their own strengths, who develop skills they would never otherwise have been able to develop, who are forced to grow up faster–that’s what you were talking about—than they would otherwise have grown up.

So, out of that harrowing experience of losing a parent, they have discovered something in themselves that’s a source of strength and learned a lesson that they would never otherwise have had to learn.

Jim: I think so often it is that God factor. I mean, people will say, how did you get through that? And I can’t answer that question really.

Malcolm: Yes.

Jim: I just know that it gave me resilience, tenacity. The other aspects of the book and we’re going fast and I apologize, but the book is so good, it’s hard to—

Malcolm: Yes.

Jim: –to cover in just a little while. Education is something important to all of us. In our listenership, as Christian listeners, education is very important. We want our kids to do well. There’s a homeschooling movement, because of the inadequacies that exist in some school districts, so they pull their kids in that direction. I was fascinated by a number of your observations when it came to education, the inverted U-curve and that one student, Sacks and there’s [sic] so many examples there. Talk about education and the way we need to maybe rethink how we look at education for our children.

Malcolm: Yeah and I talk about this in the context of college, that we’re obsessed with the notion that the best thing for a child is to go to the most selective, prestigious college he or she can get into. And that notion is false, that if you send a child to a very, very selective school, that has the effect, unless they are Albert Einstein at the top of their class, that has the effect of limiting their options, because you know, I have a whole chapter with this brilliant young woman who goes to Brown University, an Ivy League school.

She wants to study science and she is in a class. If you go to Brown and you study science, everyone else in your class is a genius! And so, she thinks, I can’t do science and so, she ends up dropping out of science and ending up in a major that she’s not in love with. And that would not have happened if she’d gone to a school that wasn’t the absolute best school she could get into.

Jim: Well, and you gotta do justice to that story, because her scores were really—

Malcolm: Oh.

Jim: –strong.

Malcolm: This is a child, a kid who’s in the 99 percentile, but she went to a school that was in the 99.9 percentile. What she did, in order words, is she overvalued the prestige of the institution she went to and didn’t understand that prestige comes with a cost and the cost is freedom.

It’s the freedom to pursue the thing you want to pursue. You know, you go to a school where you can be in the top half of the class, where you ‘re not overwhelmed by your peers, you can take a chance. You can take a course that, you know, maybe you’re not gonna be the best in the world at, but you can learn a lot and you’re not gonna be overwhelmed by your peers. You know, it’s not this relentless pursuit of the absolute[ly] most exclusive prestigious experience for our kids; [it] is a problem.

Jim: Hm.

Malcolm: Right? It has the effect of, “We’re turning out lots and lots of people who go to fancy schools and are demoralized by the experience.

Jim: And what you said in the book, which I thought was profound, those kids that are high performers, who end up in the middle section of the class at a[n] Ivy League school, if they would’ve chosen a different school, would be at the top and it impacted their confidence.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Jim: Speak about that, because that’s so critical. It’s not just what you achieve, but who you think of yourself as a person, as a successful person. How did it impact Miss Sacks?

Malcolm: Well, it goes back to what we were saying earlier about the intangibles and how crucial they are. What we now understand is, that in that crucial period of late adolescence, early 20’s, something central is going on and that is, that we are forming a sense of who we are, what we’re good at. We’re forming our self-confidence. And we haven’t paid enough attention to that crucial moment of self-formation.

And when you throw a child into an overwhelming academic environment, in that crucial moment of self-formation, you can do some damage, right? You can overwhelm. I profiled this young woman named Caroline Sacks, who was this brilliant student from a small town in Maryland, who had a choice between the University of Maryland and Brown and wanted to be a scientist and went to Brown and dropped out of science in her sophomore year, because she was in that crucial moment of self-formation and she sat in her organic chemistry class at the age of 19 and said, “I can’t do it.” And if she had been in an organic chemistry class at University of Maryland, chances are, she would’ve said, “I can do it.”

Jim: Hm.

Malcolm: And by the way, when you ‘re 25 and 30 and you’re out in the world, nobody cares where you went to college anymore. No one’s asking me where I went to college. I don’t even care where you guys went to college. (Laughter) What I see are two people who have succeeded in the world and are doing something meaningful.

So, you know, you pass through that crucial period and you came out intact, right? We’re overvaluing the brand names of schools and we’re forgetting that, what is the function of a school? It’s not a trophy to hang on our wall. It’s a place to learn who we are, right?

Jim: Hm.

Malcolm: And that’s a lesson that needs to be shouted from the mountaintops in this country, we’re so obsessed with it.

Jim: It’s counterintuitive, but I get it.

John: Take it home for me. I mean, I’ve got a child. We’re looking at a middle school selection. There are several charter schools we’re looking at. I also have a daughter that really had a difficult time her freshman year at a somewhat prestigious college.

Malcolm: Yeah.

John: It was a reach for her to get there. She came back and said, “I know what I can’t do and it’s a lot.” (Laughter)

Malcolm: Yeah.

John: So, where’s the balance between setting our kids up in the right environment and letting them flounder a bit and perhaps pick up some of those valuable life skills that happen when you hit obstacles? What’s the balancing point if there is one?

Jim: Well, and to see that as part of the learning process—

John: Yeah.

Jim: –that failure’s okay.

John: Because my heart is, oh, let’s put all the tools in place for you.

Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s important to remember that there is no rule for every child, right? The same rules do not apply to all children. So, you know, what parents have to do is, evaluate their own children on a kind of, as individuals. What do I think is best? All I’m saying is, that we have to stop using the prestige of educational institutions as a variable in this equation.

I have a joke which is that the best way to solve the college problem in this country would be, have a rule which says, “You can go wherever you want, but you can never tell, nor can anyone ever ask you to name the college you attended.”

John: Hm.

Malcolm: Right? What if we just said, “It’s off limits.” (Laughter)

John: No more sweatshirts or—

Malcolm: No more—

John: –coffee mugs.

Malcolm: –sweatshirts. On your resumé, you—

John: No bumper stickers.

Malcolm: — say what degree you got in what subject, but you can’t say where you went, right? And no one can ever ask you. Think about how that would clarify it. So, you could still send your daughter to that school if you thought she would benefit from being in a rigorous, intellectually rigorous environment. But she would never go there because she thought it would be a trophy on her wall or a nice thing to put on her resumé. Those are bad reasons to go to that school.

The good reason is, maybe I’m the kind of person who needs a little bit of that kind of intellectual rigor, right? Maybe it’s not a bad thing for my daughter to be in the bottom third of her class and so, she has to kind of fight. But that’s the right reason to go to that school. The wrong reason is, because I think it’s gonna impress a job interviewer, right? Job interviewers shouldn’t care where you went to school. They should care who you are, right?

Jim: That’s for sure. Malcolm, like I said at the beginning, your book is so interesting. We could spend hours talking about every chapter. We’ve gotta come back next time and keep talkin’ about it. Can you do that?

Malcolm: I would love to.

Closing:

John: Some really interesting insights about the value or the non-value that we place on education. We’ve been talking with Malcolm Gladwell on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly.

Jim: John, Malcolm is fascinating and I’m sure that he’s given all of us some food for thought on how we can view advantages and disadvantages, which in this culture today, we need a biblical reference for that, how we need to see God working in the circumstances that He places us in and to turn that into something for good, like Romans 8:28 says. He works “all things for good to those who love the Lord and are called by His name.” [FYI: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.] You think about that. That’s a tough Scripture to live by, but I think Malcolm is providing a window for us to look through.

Here at the close, I want to thank all of you who financially support Focus on the Family. In the last 12 months, just the last 12 months, 1.4 million families say Focus on the Family has inspired them to transform the culture through civic engagement. We do that through our broadcast, magazines, other tools that we put in the hands of people who need it right then and there. We want to empower you to be a light in the culture and share the love of God with those around you. That is what it’s all about and especially in your family. So, thank you for your partnership and if you haven’t given in a while, may I ask you to help us? That’s how the bills are paid through donations like yours. So, thank you in advance for helping us.

John: You can make that donation at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY. Ask for a copy of David and Goliath when you get in touch. It’s a fascinating read. It really gets into the issues of education, poverty, failure and success and Malcolm has an intriguing section about the power of love, how that actually diminishes crime rates.

And today we’re going to bundle that book with a CD of this two-part conversation and I should note that the book isn’t written for a religious audience and it has a little bit of earthy language in some of the illustrations and actually, if you can make a generous contribution today, we’ll send that book and CD bundle to you as our way of saying thanks. We want you to get this and so, for a contribution of any amount, we’ll make sure that David and Goliath is on your bookshelf and in your CD player, as well.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow to hear more from this conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, as we once again, provide insights and encouragement to help your family thrive. 

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